Masechet Bava Batra 161a-167b

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28 Jan 2010

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Bava Batra 161a-b

When witnesses sign legal documents, what must they write so that their signatures will be recognized and confirmed?

According to the Mishna in Masechet Gittin (87b), a person can write ben ish ploni ed – “the son of so-and-so, witness” – and that will suffice to identify the person. Similarly according to that Mishna, someone who simply signs his first name will also be recognized as a witness.

Our Gemara questions whether it is possible that a person will sign his father’s name – apparently as a show of honor to his father. This question is based on what is common practice in today’s world, that we have surnames or family names that identify members of a given family. This is evident from some names that retain an element of the original ancestor’s name, like Michaelson or Davidson.

Other examples of symbolic signatures are presented by the Gemara, as well:

According to the Gemara, when signing his name:

According to the Rashbam, aside from Rav Chisda and Rav Hoshaya who made use of significant letters that appears in their names, we do not know why each of these Sages chose their particular symbol to be their representative signatures. He surmises that they must have had some special connection with the symbol, perhaps connected with their diet or some other aspect of their daily lives.

Recognizing that symbols such as these were used, the Gemara asks whether someone may have chosen to use his father’s name as a symbol. Today’s common practice notwithstanding, the Gemara argues that no one at that time would have been so impudent as to make use of his father’s name in that way.

Bava Batra 162a-b

In Talmudic times – as today – legal documents were signed by witnesses in order to ensure their accuracy and validity. Even signed documents, however, may be compromised, if they are signed in a way that will lead to questions or confusion.

The Gemara on today’s daf presents a baraita that teaches that if the witnesses did not sign immediately after the text of the document, i.e. if two lines or more were left blank, the document is no longer trustworthy. On the other hand, if there are four or five signatures on the document, even if one of them turns out to be disqualified as a witness – e.g. he was found to be related – the document may, nevertheless, be accepted if it can be affirmed based on the other, reliable signatures.

This straightforward ruling appears to contradict a Gemara in Masechet Makkot (5b) where the ruling is that if a group of witnesses testified and one was found to be disqualified, the entire testimony is rejected.

Rabbeinu Tam is quoted as distinguishing between the two cases by differentiating between oral testimony, where all are considered a single group, and written signatures on a document where they are not. Other rishonim disagree with Rabbeinu Tam and argue that there is no difference between those two types of testimony. Most suggest that the ruling in Masechet Makkot is limited to a situation where each witness intends to testify. In the case of a legal document, however, we cannot assume that everyone who signed had the intention to testify. It could be that additional names were added simply to fill in the empty space, to honor the guests or because one of the parties insisted that everyone in the room sign their names.

There is an alternative reading to this baraita – which appears in the Tosefta in Gittin, according to which the document remains valid only if the problematic signatures appeared at the top of the list, since that is an indication that those names were signed just to honor the people and not because they were true witnesses.

Bava Batra 163a-b

One of the ways of ensuring the veracity of a legal document was to have the signatures of the witnesses examined and approved by the Jewish court. Once the bet din put its formal stamp of approval on the document, it will be considered valid with no need for any further verification.

The Gemara on today’s daf discusses a situation where space is left above the court’s stamp of approval, a situation where ordinarily the empty space is filled in with lines of ink. The Gemara asks whether we must be concerned with the possibility that the individual holding the document may cut off the text of the document together with the witnesses’ signatures, erase the lines and write a false promissory note together with the signatures of forged witnesses directly above the court’s seal of approval. In such a case the forged document could be presented for collection, given Rav‘s ruling that a document – including the witnesses’ signatures – can be written on parchment that had been erased. The Gemara responds that when the parchment was erased we will require personal testimony of the witnesses and will not accept the seal of approval without carefully checking into the situation.

A question that is raised by the rishonim is why we are only concerned about an erased document in this case, and not in other cases where the witnesses’ signatures have been approved. Perhaps the individual holding the document will erase it and rewrite it, leaving the approved signatures to attest to the contents of the document.

The Rashbam essentially accepts the question and suggests that the question would be raised in all cases of legal documents. Tosafot argue that we do not suspect that people will attempt to erase letters and words; the question only comes up where the erasures will be simple lines, which are easy to undo. Tosafot Ri”d offers another suggestion. In this case, the person holding the document has nothing to lose. His original document remains in force even as he tries to steal by means of a forged document. In this case, someone who erases a real document is taking a chance that he will be discovered and will receive neither his attempted thievery, nor the money that was really owed to him, since the document has been destroyed.

Bava Batra 164a-b

According to Jewish law, are there limitations on the praise that a person is allowed to heap on his friend?

This issue comes up as part of a discussion about documents that were either poorly — or else well — written. The Gemara tells two stories:

Rebbi [Yehuda HaNasi] received a get mekushar (see above – daf 160) and he could not locate the date. His son, Rabbi Shimon, suggested that it may have been “swallowed up” by the folds of the document. Rabbi unfolded the document and found the date. Rabbi Shimon then realized that Rabbi was peering in at him and he understood that his father assumed that he had written it incorrectly. Rabbi Shimon defended himself by saying that he had not written the document, rather it was written by Rabbi Yehuda the Tailor. Rabbi became upset with his son, and told him that he should avoid telling stories that involved lashon hara (evil tidings).

Another time Rabbi was completing a book of Tehillim and he commented that the writing in the book was very straight. Again, his son Shimon denied any connection with writing, crediting Rabbi Yehuda the Tailor as the scribe who wrote it. Again Rabbi told him that he should avoid speaking lashon hara.

While it is not surprising that the criticism of the first case could be considered lashon hara, the Gemara must explain why the second case, which involved only compliments, is considered lashon hara, as well. The Gemara explains that Rav Dimi’s ruling is the source, given his position that a person should not speak well of his friend, lest it lead to evil statements about him at a later time.

It is difficult to accept that we are not allowed to speak positively about others. Several explanations for Rav Dimi’s ruling are raised by the rishonim. Among them:

Bava Batra 165a-b

On yesterday’s daf we learned that one must be careful when speaking about others – even if he is saying things that are positive. In the continuation of that Gemara, Rav Amram quotes Rav as saying that lashon ha-ra – negative speech – is one of the three sins that a person will invariably transgress every day. Clarifying this statement, the Gemara on today’s daf says that it is not lashon hara itself that cannot be avoided, rather the statement refers to avak lashon hara – literally “the dust of evil speech.”

When the Gemara talks about lashon hara, it is discussing situations where one person says unkind things about another – even if they are true. Avak lashon hara, on the other hand would be a statement that is not, in itself, negative, rather that it can be interpreted as negative, or may lead to a negative statement being made, like the case involving Rabbi Shimon be-Rabbi and his statement about the scribe as related on yesterday’s daf.

In a similar vein, our Gemara brings Rav Yehuda quoting Rav as saying that most people transgress the prohibition of stealing, some transgress the laws of sexual impropriety, but everyone transgresses the laws of lashon hara. Again the Gemara suggests that Rav’s intention was avak lashon ha-ra rather than actual lashon hara.

The rishonim point out that the Gemara does not really anticipate that everyone will transgress laws of stealing, rather it is a reference to the things that people say in the course of business transactions that are less than truthful. The Maharsha suggests that the three transgressions mentioned – stealing, sexual impropriety and lashon hara are metaphors that represent the three types of sins that are committed – monetary crimes, physical misbehavior and spiritual transgressions.

Bava Batra 166a-b

Basic economic theory teaches that prices rise and fall based on supply and demand. The Gemara on our daf illustrates how this was known to the Sages of the Mishna, who applied that rule to assist people who brought sacrifices in the Temple.

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, a woman who gave birth was obligated to bring a sacrifice in order to enter the Temple and partake of kodashim – consecrated food. Our Gemara quotes a Mishna in Masechet Keritot (8a) that teaches that in a case where a woman miscarried a number of times – so that it is unclear whether or not she is obligated to bring the sacrifices – she should bring just one. Given the prohibition against bringing unnecessary sacrifice in the Temple, we want to minimize the number of such sacrifices that are brought.

The Mishna continues, teaching that a woman who had five live births will be obligated to bring five sacrifices; after the first one, however, she will already be permitted to partake of kodashim. The Mishna relates that once the prices of the doves brought for these sacrifices rose in price to a golden dinar and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel swore that he would act to lower the prices immediately. Recognizing that the rise in prices stemmed from the many women who came to bring multiple sacrifices, he went to the study hall and taught that even someone who had many births was only obligated to bring a single sacrifice, and the prices fell.

This ruling is surprising, given the agreement of both Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai that a separate sacrifice must be brought for each and every birth. Several explanations are offered by the rishonim in response to this question.

Bava Batra 167a-b

When a legal document is drawn up to attest to a loan or a business transaction, which of the two parties pays the cost of the scribe?

Logically it would make sense to say that the individual who will benefit from having a clear legal record of the transaction should pay the costs. Thus, the lender, who will need this documentation in order to collect the debt, would appear to be the one who should pay.

The Mishna on today’s daf rules otherwise.

According to the Mishna, it is the borrower who will pay the scribe’s wages, similarly it is the purchaser who will pay for the receipt to be written. In other cases where a contract or legal document needs to be written, we find:

The Rama explains that the underlying principle in these cases is that we do not look at the person who will benefit from having a legal record of the transaction or the agreement, rather we judge based on which party is benefitting most from the transaction itself. For example, since it is the borrower who is deriving benefit by receiving the loan, it will be his responsibility to pay for the shetar that documents the transaction. Similarly, in the case of buying and selling – which likely refers to a non-commercial sale – the one who truly derives benefit is the purchaser, since people are usually reluctant to sell their possessions.

According to the Gemara, this is true even if the purchase was a low quality field, since by its nature, real estate is a more substantial thing than money which is spent and is gone.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.